Why Twitter's 'buy' button could go the same way as Facebook's gift scheme 'fail'

Twitter's roll-out of a 'buy now' button this week risks following in the footsteps of some of Facebook's less successful e-commerce ventures, says Martin McNulty, chief executive of digital marketing agency Forward3D.

Twitter: new tool is being trialled by Burberry
Twitter: new tool is being trialled by Burberry

In August last year, Facebook announced that it was ending its physical Gifts scheme. At the time, many of us asked ‘what physical gifts scheme?’ as the total lack of engagement meant that the year-long experiment, which followed Facebook’s acquisition of social gifting app Karma, largely went unnoticed.

However, that wasn’t the end of Facebook’s e-commerce venture. Over the past 12 months, for many it grew much harder to ignore the annoyance of being told that you can buy a digital code for everything from Domino’s Pizza and Burger King, to Xbox One and Foot Locker.

Brazen

In the US, the awkward ‘Give a Gift’ button began cropping up beside posts in user news feeds that Facebook algorithmically inferred were conveying good news, like the birth of a baby or a new job.

It was the equivalent of celebrating good news with friends in a bar and having the annoyance of someone constantly interrupting to try and sell you knock-off DVDs.

Actually, it was worse than that. In a social environment where users were already expressing concerns over Facebook’s use of their personal data, here it was, brazenly asking you for your credit card details.

Underwhelming demand

It was the last straw and last month, Facebook closed down its gifts service due to "underwhelming demand". It’s only when you hear this story does it make you raise more than an eyebrow at Twitter’s recent announcement that it’s rolling out a ‘Buy’ button.

It’s been less than four weeks since the end of Facebook’s epic two-year social e-commerce fail and yet, Twitter thinks it can do it better. Users will be able to make purchases directly within tweets. If you see something you want, you hit buy, bring up a little information, enter your payment and shipping information and complete the transaction. Meanwhile, your payment and shipping details are encrypted and stored for future purchases. Has Twitter not been watching what happened with Facebook?

If the button’s debut launch partner hasn’t been thought through, I suspect a strategy for ensuring success hasn’t either

I guess the difference between the social models is that Facebook is the friend’s dinner party table, whereas Twitter is a whole restaurant, filled with strangers talking loudly about their news and current affairs. Even so, when you’re sitting on a restaurant’s terrace during a warm summer’s evening listening to all the chatter, do you really want to buy a rose from that patrolling flower seller?

The first 'flower sellers' signed up to partner Twitter’s Buy button include luxury fashion brand Burberry. On the surface, this appears quite a coup as the clothing brand has done well in recent years to position itself as the most tech-savvy of the luxury labels.

But, what happens during London Fashion Week for example, when Burberry’s army of PRs and bloggers use Twitter to amplify comments on the looks and outfits that appear on the catwalk. What good is the Buy button here? You can’t buy these clothes. It’ll be another six months before they hit the stores. Twitter is about the here and now, not six months time. As a result, it feels all too similar to Facebook’s story. If the button’s debut launch partner hasn’t been thought through, I suspect a strategy for ensuring success hasn’t either.

Headline-grabbing fluff

The real opportunity for Twitter here is to build a niche for facilitating spontaneous, low value purchases and answer the questions that advertisers and brands have been asking for years; how do you make e-commerce work on western social media platforms, and how to deliver and measure ROI? WeChat and Line are already proving across Asian markets that transactions on social networks can be successful with their equivalent payment functionality.   

Twitter’s foundations have always been hardwired by both its users and the company in providing instant, attention-grabbing content as consumers glance through their timelines. This type of transaction functionality matches this behaviour perfectly.  Music singles, digital downloads and mobile app games; these are the low value and risk purchases that originally inspired the mobile app store craze that can breathe new life into social media engagement and crucially for these platforms’ growth, advertising. I just hope that Twitter picks future partners according to user behavioural insights rather than headline-grabbing fluff.